The Oregon Department of Forestry did an
exceptional job of putting out four wildfires in
southern Klamath County during the past few
weeks. The Algoma, Bryant, Moccasin Hills and
Ferguson wildfires consumed a total of nearly
5,000 acres of privately owned timber and
brush-covered land. According to the fire
reports, twenty dwellings were destroyed and
about that many other structures were burned.
readers may know that I worked for the USFS as a
wild land fire fighter for several summers while
earning my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at
Washington State. Our "hotshot" crew was
stationed in Redmond, Oregon. We fought 43 major
fires in eight western states while I was a
member of the "Roadrunners." I have been able to
spend some time on site during this summer's
four wildfires were man-caused. Conditions are
so incredibly dry that a single spark and a
gentle breeze can create an inferno within
minutes. The addition of steep terrain, hot
windy weather and limited access added to the
potential for disastrous outcomes.
Absent the Department's immediate first-strike
and sustained response, each of these fires
would have been much more destructive and would
have endangered many more lives and property. In
fact, virtually no natural barriers exist on at
least three of the wildfires that would have
impeded their growth into tens of thousands of
Landowners pay the Department of Forestry an
annual per acre assessment to protect their
property and forest land. The department is
contracted to fight fires that start or burn on
landowners' protected property, and fires that
originate on federal or state owned land that
threatens their property and timber resources.
essentially matches the first $10 million of
assessments with taxpayer General Fund. Te next
$25 million of fire suppression costs is paid
through a Lloyd's of London fire liability
insurance policy purchased by the State.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
reimburses the State for certain wildfire
suppression costs on state protected land where
peoples' lives, homes and possessions are
endangered. Fire suppression costs on state
protected land in excess of $45 million, not
reimbursed by FEMA, are paid out of the General
the first time this budget period, the Oregon
Legislature allocated about $5 million to
enhanced "first strike" capabilities. Air
tankers, helicopters, bulldozers, pumpers and
other equipment and firefighters have been
pre-positioned to enhance their ability to reach
a fire and put it out before it gets out of
control. The "first strike" capability is paying
The Department has been able to quickly respond
to each major wildfire with sufficient equipment
and manpower to knock it down and put it out.
They have been able to access multiple air
tankers, water dropping helicopters, bulldozers
and pumpers, within the first 24 hours. In fact,
more than 800 people were fighting the Bryant
Fire on its second day.
four fires have been stopped and extinguished in
spite of very dry conditions, high winds, and
soetimes treacherously steep hillsides.
The Department successfully implemented their
new motto that “every acre counts”. They
primarily employed direct attack firefighting by
getting in close and stopping the fire at its
natural edges. They minimized the number of
private forest acres burned by employing
burn-out fires and backfires only when
Their communications with landowners, and the
local communities have been exceptional.
They ask for and used community knowledge of the
area to determine points of access and the
availability of water. They were in constant
contact with landowners and the local community
explaining their plan of attack, why it needed
to be done and how they intended to do it.
Virtually no natural sources of water were
available for the fire fighters on the Bryant
fire because of the extreme drought conditions.
Local ranchers pumped groundwater into
reservoirs and canals for helicopters and
pumpers to use on the fire. In fact, one of the
wells used extensively in the air attack effort
is an irrigation drought well that the Oregon
Department of Water Resources had initially told
the owner he could not use this summer.
opinion, the Department's fire fighting
operations on the four local fires have been
both professional and very effective.
It has not always been that way! In my opinion,
the fire-fighting effort two years ago on the
Berry Point Fire near Lakeview was neither
professional nor effective. The fire was under
the management of professional US Forest Service
fire teams. The Oregon Department of Forestry
was at best ineffective in asserting their fire
management goals and direct attack techniques.
That wildfire burned more than 90,000 acres. It
burned out of control for eleven days,
destroying more than 30,000 acres of privately
Backfires and burn-outs were employed so
frequently that tens of thousands of acres of
forests were needlessly destroyed.
Many of those fires, ignited at the direction of
fire management, pointlessly incinerated private
forested land. Several of those backfires never
reached the edges of the original fire. Others
threatened homes and ranches. Most egregiously,
more than one of the backfires threatened the
lives of landowners fighting to save their own
Effective communications with landowners and the
Lakeview community were virtually non-existent.
Fire crews were given inadequate directions,
virtually worthless maps and too often left
large sections of the fire lines unmanned.
Landowners who tried to help were ignored and
shunned. Their property was not protected and
too often incinerated by indirect firefighting